Why Would Young People Want to Remain Catholic?

“This was like the synod for the American Church.”

This remark came from one of the more than 20 bishops[1] during a closing conversation for the Cultures of Formation conference hosted by the McGrath Institute for Church Life and cosponsored by the USCCB committee on doctrine.

It was a breathtaking three days. Some 550 registered participants and a few hundred more unregistered attendees considered the profound issues, the pressing needs, and the most ambitious hopes for what Pope Francis has asked the whole Church to focus its attention: “Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment.” While those of us who were in attendance will be unpacking what we heard and discussed for months and years to come, those who were not able to attend can sign-up for free follow-up resources, including a forthcoming digital conference, on the conference webpage.

Since a comprehensive rundown of the whole conference would likely require at least an entire book if not a multivolume series, I would like to offer six initial reflections both to remind those of us who were there about what we heard, and to offer those who were not in attendance a taste of some of the conference’s fruits (you can also check out #CulturesofFormation on social media—especially Twitter—to find some highlights).

Why Would Young People Want to Be Catholic?

The banner question for the conference was “How do we make it easier for young people to be Catholic?” This question does not imply that we ought to water down the Catholic faith to make it less demanding, but rather that we want to rebuild the kind of environments and ways of being that surround young people with a Catholic worldview, and offer the benefit of the doubt, towards the life of the Gospel. As Fr. Paddy Gilger, SJ, America Magazine's contributing editor for culture, put it, “We are persons who are not always pushed by our beliefs but more often pulled by our desires.” The mission of evangelizing for anyone—and perhaps especially for young people—is to help shape and reshape desires, to appeal through credible beauty and wonder to a way of life that becomes desirable.

Joe Campo, who runs the St. Francis House in Brooklyn, and founded Grassroots Films with the at-risk youth that find a home with him, displayed this key to evangelization with one short story. Confessing that his goal for the young men who come to live with him is not to convert them but rather to surround them with the love of the Gospel that he himself has received, Campo recalled one particular young man who, when asked to lead grace before dinner one night, made the sign of the cross. The young man was not Catholic, so Joe asked him what he was doing. The brief exchange went like this:

“I want to be Catholic.”
“Because I’ve been watching you and I’ve been watching the other guys.”

Right there is the key to evangelization: we need witnesses who testify to the truth, show the beauty of the faith, and become a living Gospel for others. Evangelizers absorb the Gospel and they become the Gospel for others. Campo has spent 27 years creating the kind of home where it is easier for young people not only to be good, but also to encounter the living Gospel. It is their common culture in their home, and over time those who do not know Christ come to meet him in and through the life they share together. That is what we mean by a “culture of formation.”

The Family Home Is the First School of Love

“We live in a fatherless society,” Campo decried. The young men who come to him are almost all living without their father, and their mothers have been required to do too much—more than anyone could bear alone. In this void, Campo seeks to become a father for the fatherless.

Katherine Angulo of the Archdiocese of Atlanta described something similar but in a different way: “Our young people live in a world of violence. All of them.” The commonplace condition for young people is one of abandonment, lack of mentoring, homelessness, swirling and confusing messages, and various forms of physical, emotional, or psychological abuse. This is most evident in those young people who are refugees, living in between somewhere they cannot stay and somewhere else that will not receive them. They do not have a home—a place that is not only safe but also nurturing, filled with love, where what is true and good and beautiful is learned simply through how they live with and among those who love them. The family home is the first place where young people encounter the Gospel, or not.

The family takes pride of place as the first site for nourishing and empowering young people, as Tim O’Malley said. But parents need help! Parents need help to become witnesses to the faith for their children, to create homes that shine with the beauty of the Gospel like the St. Francis House. The fact of the matter is that parenting is really, really hard, and we are not doing enough to help parents learn to be Catholic parents. And formation for Catholic parenting begins long before the first child arrives.

The investment in Catholic parenting is an investment in the family home as the first school of love. It is an investment in young people, to give them an initial culture that forms them in the Catholic faith and will remain a home for them as they encounter the uncertainties and transitions of life. The family home is the primary space of hospitality where mercy and presence are practiced, as Colleen Moore argued. So much of the modern world is about being digitally connected but physically absent—against this, the family home is where we learn to actually live together.

The Church has a special duty to heal the wounds in broken families and offer pastoral care to those young people who do not grow in such homes of love. For the fatherless, mature disciples must become fathers, and for the motherless, we need generous disciples to become mothers. When “home” is a place of violence for young people, we need to create a home for them in the Church that nourishes and heals. When young people are neglected or ignored, we must recreate the spaces where they can speak, and we must become the truly present mentors who listen to them.

Recent research has found that formerly Catholic young people begin to disaffiliate from the Catholic in their middle school years. As one of the attending bishops observed, “If we’re losing kids by the time they’re 12 or 13, that means we never really had them. And we never really had them because we’ve lost their parents.” Again, the investment in young people begins with an investment in their parents and the re-creation of the family home as the domestic church, but the investment in parents begins well before parents become parents. We need to create cultures of formation for parents, who create the cultures of formation for their children.

We Need Midway Points for Young People—Let’s Call Them “Cultures of Belonging”

It might at first sound preposterous to say that “the Mass is not enough.” Indeed, the Eucharist is the source and summit of the Catholic faith, of the Christian life, but from the perspective of a drifting or uncertain or wounded or questioning young person, that seems like a big ask. As a pastoral imperative, we need to create multiple access points for young people, through which they can be re-introduced to and slowly nourished by the Catholic faith. John Cavadini, director of the McGrath Institute for Church Life, calls these “cultures of belonging.”

What are the small practices or low-stakes buy-ins that we can present to young people? As one example, how about spaces where they can encounter silence and break from the hustle-and-bustle of the increasingly frenetic, interconnected world? If these spaces of silence can become opportunities for Eucharistic adoration—without all the lights, music, and theatrics we sometimes like to attach to it—then young people simply experience being in the presence of Christ without the worry of having to do anything. Even more, perhaps without knowing it, they will be in an environment where they are being looked upon in love. These are the kinds of environments where desires are reshaped.

Katherine Angulo put it this way: Young people often have some sense of what they’re looking for, but they don’t have the language to express it. In particular, they don’t know the language of the faith, the language of the Church. We need language training to bridge the gap, to open up pathways of access. “Cultures of belonging” are not the source and summit; rather, they are like little schools of language, where young people come in speaking their language and slowly learn how to hear and interpret and eventually speak the language of Christ in the Church. “I came looking for silence, just to get away from everything—I left desiring to be looked upon by the one who loves me in the silence of the Eucharist.”

The opportunities for creative pastoral strategies abound in this realm. We can trust in small, intentional practices cultivated through small, intentional cultures.

The Half-truth of the “Sacramentalized but not Evangelized” Mantra

The undeniable fact is that there are plenty of obstructions on the way to the Word of God in our modern lives. It is also true that this has been the case in every generation before us and it will be true in every generation to follow. It is not that the sacraments do not work; rather, we are sluggish in working with them. The distance between receiving the Body of Christ in the Eucharist and becoming what we receive is measured in the slow transformation of our lives into a Eucharistic offering to God through others. Christ gives without fail; our manner of receiving and therefore becoming conformed to his love is the open question.

The “sacramentalized but not evangelized” description that has become popular in the past decade is true to the extent that it points to the problem of translation, of being wholly transformed by what we receive in the sacraments, through the body of the Church. It is misleading, however, to the extent that we think this is simply a matter of individual willpower or of “intentionality.” Yes, the grace we receive in the sacraments frees us to live fully in Christ, but no, the obstructions to the fullness of this life are not only matters of the individual’s heart. The very environments—the cultures—that we inhabit oftentimes obstruct this freedom in subtle but profound ways. In the same way, the cultures we re-create or rebuild can and will “make it easier” for all of us—including and especially young people—to become what we receive in the sacraments. The cultural approach relieves the growing disciple from having to carry the weight of transformation alone and orders that personal responsibility towards a shared corporal mission, where we learn how to become what we receive together. To establish these kinds of cultures, we need to risk being sharply perceptive and brutally honest about what is actually going on around us.

If we consider, for example, how the world in which we live today is, in significant respects, a “digital world,” we can begin to discern the subtle but profound ways in which this “culture” (or “anti-culture”) obstructs the Word of God through the environments and habits that become “natural” to us. As Brett Robinson skillfully argued, the digital world is driven by the possibility of endless daydreaming. When we really analyze what is going on, we might start to see that this environment—the environment that is most common to most of our young people—offers possibility after possibility that can be pursued and just as quickly left behind without the weight that comes with the demands of commitment. Sure, this is present in digital news pages and social media feeds, but it is also present in dating apps and, perhaps above all, in internet pornography, as Jess Keating noted. What becomes addictive in this environment is not so much the content itself, but rather the small bursts of (fleeting) satisfaction that are constantly on offer. As Abigail Favale argued, this is not unlike the prevalent consumer paradigm for sex in popular culture, which reduces the act to inconsequential serial-pleasure. Summarily, as Robinson concluded, it is the incentives of the (digital) environment that are addictive—likes and retweets and all the other forms of validation—rather than strictly the content itself. The work of evangelization is therefore tied up with offering what is more pleasing, more fulfilling, and more desirable, in the deepest and most sustaining kind of ways.

Technology and culture commentator, Nicholas Carr, furthered this point in the featured lecture, entitled “Our Smartphones, Ourselves.” He claimed that the strongest reason to (strategically) resist our smartphones or the apps and software that always makes our lives ostensibly easier is that they erase the world’s resistance to our lives. The objective when software engineers or apps designers develop new programming is to pinpoint where the effort in a process resides, and then take away the effort necessary to complete the task. By this route, we get to our goal more easily, with less “friction.” This is pleasing, of course, and in many cases just really helpful, but we must also recognize the flipside of this phenomenon, which is that the loss in the opportunity to struggle and to exert effort is also the loss of the opportunity to develop mastery. Archbishop Michael Byrnes of Guam responded to this with a public comment by saying that, “a sign of maturity is being able to bring something to completion—that is, to master something.” Ease of accomplishment is not the same as developing mastery; in fact, the former often works against the latter.

If evangelization is indeed ultimately about not simply proclaiming the Word but guiding disciples and would-be disciples into the fullness of the Christian life, then there are really important kinds of friction, effort, and struggle that we do not want to take away. Students become masters through these very processes, with support and mentoring of course. This is but one example of how “sacramentalized but evangelized” presents a kind of half-truth: it is true in that there is hard work that is necessary for the gift that is given in the sacraments (given to us through Christ’s sacrifice!) to take flesh in us, but it is severely limiting to fail to attend to the cultural practices that make something like effort and the path to mastery less likely and leaves young people less capable of adventure and challenge. In order to evangelize them and help free them to evangelize others, we must seriously examine and respond to the prevalent cultures that are currently forming them and rebuild nourishing cultures where what they are lacking becomes more readily available.

In terms of reclaiming the opportunities for bodily struggle and materiality, we should focus on actual bodily practices (i.e., non-digital ones), including the regular practice of the Works of Mercy. These works train us to share in the struggles of others, to bear weight together, and to confront what is unpleasant and disheartening. These are also opportunities for discovering joy that is not fleeting.

Furthermore, we might consider the critical capacity of memory for discipleship. As one bishop remarked in response to my own presentation on Mary of Nazareth: “Mary’s heart was a library for the Word of God, and at best we’ve given our young people the children’s section.” If failing to teach them Scripture and commit both the words and the images to memory, we deprive them of the capacity for listening to the Word in a way that allows them to grow in understanding of the Lord’s ways and thus discover their own vocations in life. As St. Jerome said centuries ago, “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.”

Not Only Are the Laborers Few, but They Are Also Under-equipped and Underpaid

There is a lot to worry about and a lot of work to do for the good of our young people and for the good of the Church. And yet, the fact remains that we are heavily relying on volunteers for our ministries to young people. This is true to some extent with “youth ministry” but even more so with our ministries to younger adolescents (middle school) and young adults (twenty- and thirty-somethings). If we are really serious about our mission of evangelization, then we must either really invest in training our volunteers or we need to invest in professional ministers and educators to marshal our efforts. The laborers are too few, and the ones who do receive wages are not paid well enough in most cases, nor are they supported as they should be. This whole synodal process runs the risk of peaking at wishful thinking unless we invest not only our energies but our money and all our resources in forming and educating our young people. And that means investing in those who professionally form and educate them, who must also call the rest of the Church into direct mentoring and engagement with young people. Again, we need a culture of formation.

It is not as if, however, “the Church” is just sitting on mounds of cash. If we are going to invest resources in our young people in the persons of ministers for education and catechesis, then we the faithful must invest our own resources. As with the Israelites in the Book of Exodus, so with us now: only out of generous hearts will the materials out of which a beautiful offering to God comes forth (see Ex 35:5; cf., 25:2). The response to the challenge of forming young people in the Faith and equipping them for true vocational discernment is not more or better programs, more documents, and certainly not a constellation of shiny new apps. The response has to be a concerted and real investment of the whole Church—of all the faithful—in what matters most: passing on the Faith to those who come after us . . . and that means sacrificing for the Faith, in real terms.

God values us so much that he entrusts us to transmit the Gospel. This has been true from the apostolic age until now. It is true for the more the two dozen bishops who were in the room for Cultures of Formation, and for the hundreds of lay people and priests and religious who joined them. It is the folly of God, the humility of God, the beauty of God that we are entrusted with something so precious, so glorious, so liberating. But in order to reverence this gift, we must put everything at the disposal of our mission in the Gospel. This is how we not only pass on the Faith to others, but also how we come to shine with the Faith ourselves.

The mission of forming young people in the Faith is not only the responsibility of professional or ordained ministers, but they do have a key role. And for too long we have outsourced our responsibilities to these dwindling few without supporting them as we should. The time for skimping on our young people and the Church has passed; it is high time to offer our very best, no matter the cost.

From Beginning to End, We Abide in Hope

Midway through the conference, newly installed Bishop Bill Wack, C.S.C., of Pensacola-Tallahassee tweeted that, “It has been sobering and challenging (i.e., the statistic on young people leaving the church), but we must remain hopeful as we work on engaging and helping to form our brothers and sisters in the Catholic Faith.”

There are not a lot of reasons for optimism, but there is every reason for hope. Optimism is either the result of a calculation of the available evidence that warrants the assumption of a positive conclusion, or it is naïve wishing. Hope, though, is personal. More to the point, hope is founded on fidelity to the promises of Christ—we believe that he is who he has shown himself to be and we trust that what he says is true. The one who slayed death is more than capable of guiding us through the perils of the digital world, fatherless societies, biblical illiteracy, violence and abuse, and every kind of exploitation that our young people endure or perpetuate. Our part is to trust Christ and to give ourselves over to the mission of evangelization, sacrificing our comfort, shyness, anxiety, and concern for our own status along the way. That’s hope in action.

Moreover, the whole synodal process is entrusted to Mary, the Blessed Mother. She remains Our Lady of Hope because she gives everything to her Son, who redeems us. As the preparatory document for the synod offers in its closing section: “In her eyes every young person can rediscover the beauty of discernment; in her hear every young person can experience the tenderness of intimacy and the courage of witness and mission.”

And so the Cultures of Formations conference began and concluded with hope. This hope is offered into the loving arms of our Blessed Mother, trusting that through her prayer “we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.”

[1] If bishops or other participants offered their remarks in public during a plenary session, I cite them by name; if the comments were made in non-public sessions, I leave them anonymous.


Leonard J. DeLorenzo

Leonard J. DeLorenzo, Ph.D. serves in the McGrath Institute for Church Life and teaches theology at Notre Dame. His book on death, desire, and the communion of saints is Work of Love: A Theological Reconstruction of the Communion of Saints.

Read more by Leonard J. DeLorenzo